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Communities need leaders worth their salt

In a week or so, I would have spent 30 years as a paid staff in the social services with the same organisation.  Before that, I had a 6 month stint in a non-profit where I was organising community service activities in neighbourhoods for 2 days a week.  Of course it has not been the same job and I grew with an organisation that had 4 paid staff including myself when I joined to one with 102 today that I lead.  I have been in this leadership position for about 15 years now and although I have always endeavoured to build a Community Workplace, I must say that it is only in the past year or so, have I experienced community both in my head and in my heart.  Yes, there were periods of community bliss in the past but we were small teams of 6 to 10 persons. 

At work, I frequently had colleagues who were from a religious order living as a community among the people the organisation serves. Hence, the word “community” was often heard in conversations among colleagues but it never meant much to those of us who lived a secular life. I began dwelling on the meaning of community only after a volunteer psychiatrist introduced the staff team to the concepts of community as described by M Scott Peck in his book, The Different Drum. This psychiatrist was trying to guide us into becoming a more cooperative team and he spent a few months with us on a weekly basis journeying with us through the phases of community building:

  1. Psuedo -Community
  2. Chaos
  3. Emptiness
  4. Community

I am not sure if we ever got to phase 4 but it got me interested enough to join as a member of the Foundation of Community Encouragement and I would receive regular newsletters and information on Community Building. So began my quest for understanding, discovering and experiencing the meaning of community.  The idea of a non-profit being a community appealed to me and so when I got into a leadership position, I declared that we were going to be a Community Workplace. I must have confused and bored a whole lot of people and was most fortunate for bosses who indulged in my “circular” organizational charts and clichés like “the first among equals.” I guess they were kind enough to regard me as a young unconfident and reluctant leader rather than one out of touch with reality.

Recently, in a casual conversation with an older person who had in the past, pointed me towards philosophies he thought that I was seeking, I said “You know, I believe community comes with age.  I could never fully appreciate its value until recently.”  Without skipping a beat, he agreed “Younger people are breaking away from their family, their background and are striving to establish themselves as strong independent individuals. The interdependence among members of a community would be hard for them to take.”

I share this recent conversation because a young person breaking away from family and traditions trying to stand strong and different could be a metaphor for professionalized social services.  Family and community are a fundamental source of people’s well-being but to maintain its relevance, social services position the professional as knowing better or a superior source of well-being.  All things being equal, a young person would probably fair better if he could acknowledge that he has come so far because of his family and community and learns to draw on their support as he seeks to establish himself as a distinct individual. Similarly instead of competing and replacing family and community with professional technology backed by evidence (the results are generally dismal anyway), social services can learn to cooperate with family and tradition to reclaim, reinvent or rebuild community. The operating tenet for social services must always be to work itself out of a job but each time government spending on social services increases, the sector claps because there will be more jobs in social services. Is such spending on social services alleviating, maintaining or increasing social problems?  Are people living better lives within an extensive social service system whose raw materials for growth are their needs and deficiencies?

Over the past 10 years, my organisation has been operating with a staff of 100 to120 and unwittingly, our quest for community gave way to the pursuit of organisational excellence as our world generally understands or promotes. I have come to appreciate that productivity, efficiency, efficacy are important aspects of work  but such organisational excellence does not necessary mean we do meaningful and satisfying work that enriches the lives of those we proclaim to serve.  Even if we assess that good comes out of such good practices, its sustainability is largely dependent on resources that maintain a highly motivated and skilled team of paid professionals.

Within the sphere of organisational excellence is of course human resource management which often operates on the logic of incentivising the good and de-incentivising the bad.   Simply put, rewarding desired outcomes or behaviours and punishing behaviours and outcomes that suggest non-performance.  This carrot and stick approach keeps the staff on their toes and is also touted as a motivation technique.  It seems to say that people are motivated either by greed or by fear.  Perhaps so but is a working environment that perpetuates fear and greed appropriate for getting the best out of helping professionals in the service of others?  Is it also desirable that these helping professionals may in turn motivate their service-users with fear and greed?  As a leader, one of my key tasks is to nurture a passionate and motivated team. Does it then mean that I will succeed when I can encourage my colleagues to be more greedy and fearful? I would like to think that the social service professional is someone who is motivated by a higher purpose or by reasons other than money and shame.

To clarify, I am of the view that work needs to be well organised and resources utilised prudently.  Well-designed and well-thought through systems make work light, productive and possibly even pleasurable.  However, it would require more that the logic of prudent management for our human resources to excel.  I believe we need our human resources to believe that they are part of a community that exist for purposes beyond themselves. As observed by Peter Block and John McKnight in their book, the Abundant Community; a community has an environment where there is generosity, kindness, cooperation, forgiveness, acceptance of the human condition and mystery.   I believe that an important part of motivation is to create such an environment and so my endeavour toward a Community Workplace and my hope that my team brings these properties of a community with us wherever we work.

For me a Community Workplace is one where the quality and sustainability of work produced co-relates with the quality of community experienced by the workers. However we can’t really create a system that predictably brings about a community simply because a system is not a community. A strong community utilises systems to further their purpose but a strong system that is not within a Community Workplace discourages community.  Therefore, members of a Community Workplace cannot simply sit back, relax and let the system run if they want to continue enjoying the benefits a community brings. They have to be active members of the community who regard themselves as leaders that maintain, nurture and encourage the relevance of their community.  Communities need leaders worth their salt.

Leaders at a Community Workplace cultivate the following qualities within themselves as a way of life:


Self-awareness, self-regulation and strength of response

Being a leader is a commitment to self-growth with a   view that leadership is really not so much about the size of the job or the   opportunity but the strength of one’s response.



The primary role of the leader is to get people to   confront their most pressing challenges. Not doing so usually means hastening   the state of dysfunction within a workplace, a team, a community or even a   country. There is no road map and leaders embrace the unknown and adapt as   they lead.


Love of self and being loving towards others

This four letter word may be offensive for a system   that prides itself on objective, predictable and transparent processes. Yet   it is people that have created systems and it is people that work within   systems.  It is also normal, good and  desirable that people  need love.


Towards a higher purpose

A Community Workplace sounds idealistic but whether   it can be achieved is not such an important question. Leaders are driven by   ideals and recognise that a better world comes about only with such   endeavour.  


Our world is run by systems and we have grown accustomed to the convenience, comfort and assurance they provide. So much so, the logic of organisational excellence in embedded in us and sometimes we cannot imagine that any good can emerge without a system in place. Hence, as a community is not a system, encouraging community is an uphill task that would also require leaders worth their salt.

I have attended meetings where well-intentioned people sincerely want to improve and increase the sense of community among people.  When a proposal from the community is received, organisational logic kicks in and concerns such as sustainability, efficacy and efficiency are put forth, often discouraging the proposer. The logic of community is different. Instead of sustainability, we need to value variety and trust that as long an initiative is relevant, it will be sustained. And when it is not, then its relevance may have passed.  Efficacy is not so much about the quality of a service but the quality and strength of relationships among people when they care for each other. As for efficiency, we need to ponder why things are not moving as fast as we would like or anticipated. Is the lack of pace really impeding progress or is it slowing down destruction?

Working for community is not just a job but a journey toward a way of life where people care for each other. Hence, as life goes, there is never a straightforward answer and the necessity for leaders who can Stimulate discussions that strengthen relationships; Appreciate other members of the community even when we feel attacked or alienated; Learn and listen to see how it is actually our own load that is slowing us down and Transfer all learning and experiences to one’s own life with the humility of a trainee.  This is the never-ending journey for leaders worth their salt.


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Comment by Robyn Stratton-Berkessel on October 13, 2012 at 5:59pm
SALT is a most meaningful acronym. Thank you for sharing your experience and your wisdom. Experiencing a sense of belonging, ownership, contribution are other factors that come to mind about being in community. I remember years ago when I was in a leadership role and drew my org chart as a circle. My boss challenged my leadership capacity, as I did not follow the conventional hierarchical model.
Comment by Jan Somers on October 13, 2012 at 8:05am

Thank you for these inspiring, triggering words Gerard.  

Will you be attending the Global Learning Festival in Chennai shortly?

Comment by Olivia Munoru on October 12, 2012 at 10:49pm

Beautifully written! Gerard, you have triggered many thoughts which I will carry with me for a long time. The term Community Workplace - this is very interesting to me and something which resonates. Here in London, I am part of a community of entrepreneurs - and indeed it is somewhat a "systematic" community, still only just beginning to build the deeper qualities like those that you list. But the value of belonging - simply BELONGING to something, that is, in itself, very encouraging.

You mentioned one of my favourites - John McKnight. His critiques of the over-professionalised services really resonate with me. Have you read Illich? I am sure you have - his work "DeSchooling Society" is another great commentary which speaks to what you mention here - the creation of need, where perhaps that need could have been avoided / accepted / percieved differently. 

Well - there's so much here that I just wish I could come back to visit your wonderful COmmunity Workplace and chat and chat! Instead... please keep writing - I love your blogs. 

Comment by Adrian Daisley on October 12, 2012 at 7:01pm

I like this post so very encouraging.

Comment by Phil on October 12, 2012 at 10:03am


I read this yesterday and I have kept coming back to it and reading it again. There is so much to reflect on that I really don' t know where to begin. 

The phrase 'Community Workplace' is new to me, but I think that what you discuss is relevant to all work places. 

At the moment, what I take from your text is a tension that sits between the idea of Community and Workplace. So can a Workplace be like a Community? And I guess, equally relevant, can a Community be like a Workplace? 

One sub-tension that you discuss is between Independence and Interdependence and I found that a challenging idea to reflect on at a personal level. (I am reminded of the angry debate over Barack Obama's sentence, 'You did not build that?'. The tension exists at a national level too!)

You describe other tensions around systems and operational logic and I think all of them arise within the Community Life Competence process. They are challenges for the 'communities' as well as workplace communities. Perhaps we should be exploring them more directly within CLCP? 

Earlier this week I was listening to a small group of people as they discussed the challenges of impending or recent retirement. After a while there was a willingness to discuss the fear and apprehension that this event was inspiring in them. When we discussed what they were losing by the loss of a 'workplace' I don't think that the word love would have been out of place. But I am not sure that I would have had the courage to use the word explicitly. Sometimes love has to remain unstated. 

Thank you so much for these ideas. I will continue to think about them. 

Best regards


Comment by NAMARA ARTHUR ARAALI on October 11, 2012 at 12:57pm

Thanks Gerard, I have printed it out for my volunteers to read

Comment by Onesmus Mutuku on October 10, 2012 at 10:42pm

Gerard, i am so pleased - spared 10 minutes to read this! I like the way you articulate what defines  a community, including foundations for expansion.


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